Recommending Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII is somewhat tough, but not because it’s a bad game. Far from it. It’s an entertaining romp, but in the Koei tradition of inertia-gaining busywork, you’ve got to know what you’re getting for your wu zhu.
The series has swayed in iterations between being an omnipotent kingdom commander and role-playing a rank-and-file officer under a regional lord. This new effort mixes it up a touch by combining both styles as you carve your name into the chaos at the fall of the Han. Your time is divided between civic development and waging war, a two-part mix no significant departure to any other strategy. Where Kou Shibusawa and friends differentiate themselves to the likes of Henrik Fåraeus or Soren Johnson is in a complete currency of characters. Best keep your copy of the namesake novel handy.
The sprawling cast of lavishly rendered and bombastically scripted figures grease the wheels of empire through a malleable clutch of personal statistics and prowess. One character might be an adroit governor for a regional city, offering the ability to wring a greater percentage of coin from established markets. Another, an able diplomat with withering intellect the perfect officer to cajole or caress neighbouring states. These people are the foundation of all operations, rather than a odd sprinkle of personality.
Characters can be assigned to autonomously preen a city; be it for agriculture, commerce or culture. Atop that, a city’s military ought to be trained in either spear, bow or mounted disciplines. Military characters specialise in any number of these disciplines, but military proficiencies can also be boosted by forcing or coercing other towns into a player’s sphere of control. These villages serve as military or civic sweeteners, each harbouring a discrete boon to the commander who annexes or placates the settlement. Moreover, they serve as subtle points of contention as borders begin to clip.
In the early game, players start as mere officers beneath a regional lord. This won’t win anyone over who isn’t already invested in role-playing their historical character. It’s a slog of increments; assignments are delegated by aforementioned lord, of whose relationship you need to carefully manage to rise in rank and familiarity. Completing both civic and military missions, visiting for counsel, making advantageous proposals and currying favour via gifts helps keep players on an upward swing of prestige and power.
Once promoted and free of hierarchical gopher shackles, you’re able to begin operating as a proper autocrat. It appears a lot more dynamic than last year’s Nobunaga’s Ambition, where the sprocket of player action felt like the only one gear capable of shaking things up. There isn’t the hyper-historical pliability of a Paradox title, but there’s a good sense of movement as everything begins to ratchet up and officers effect your will.
I’ve always had a fondness for caustic fox of the Wei, Cao Cao, and have enjoyed running a ruthless campaign of subjugation and development from the dawn of the Yellow Turbans. An empire’s rise is largely left up to the player, but historical milestones are met as the years roll by – provided the actors are still in play. Case in point, the combined might of my military descended on Yuan Shao well before our coalition against Dong Zhuo or showdown at Guandu. Outside of the inherent gaining of experience and territory, the Middle Kingdom keeps on trucking.
Combat can be automated, but there is the option to directly delegate in a simplistic real-time tactical module. Players punt swathes of troops around small maps, each a geographically indistinct square of random terrain. Unlike the last Romance of the Three Kingdoms game to hit the West, combat in XIII lacks depth beyond manoeuvring for pincer bonuses or loosing a commander’s special ability. In times of numerical inferiority, a partaking player can turn the odds in their favour, but as long as troop numbers and officer’s ratings are above those of their enemy, real-time combat is entirely forgettable.
On console, where meaty grand strategies are rare, this game is a coup. But on PC, where the stable is a little more crowded and gamers are coming away from the likes of Crusader Kings or Civilization, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is such a strange beast and confounding proposition. It has anachronisms of interface, low-gear busywork and odd positions of power that oscillate between commanding vast armies and running errands for peasants. City management and upgrade paths aren’t immediately apparent. Interpersonal relationships don’t require particular finesse to improve, solved largely by gold and gifts.
By the same token, it is an utter delight to play. Characters come and go, bandits skulk in cities and demand duels, debates rage over political matters. Armies, billeted in border cities or marching on enemy fortresses under flapping banners, rumble about in great columns. As the seasons change, your most successful officers are awarded for their finest deeds. And heck, even the ultra-simplistic combat feels satisfying as mounted troops crush an outflanked opponent, destroying the enemy general and triggering an army-wide scarification of morale. Where contemporaries of Koei’s game offer much greater strategic fidelity, they are often found wanting in pageantry and soul. As such, there’s room for both and this game certainly fills a niche.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII is a unique grand strategy experience, buoyed by its focus on personalities and proficiencies but grounded by low-grade drudgery and an interface that belies its console roots. The game’s lighter combat won’t delight Total Warriors, nor will civil engineers find much to love in its civic simplicity. But, you’ve a predilection for role-playing history — I mean really soaking in the era by name and face — Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII is as close to an interactive Gao Xixi drama as you’ll get. If you’ve well-thumbed volumes of Luo Guanzhong’s epic on your shelf, even better.